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Discover Charleston

Along The Banks Of The Ashley River: A Tea Set & A Lost Plantation


Blog-artifacts-found-during-construction-in-charleston-sc.jpgLate last year we took time to explore a large tract of land on Hwy. 61 between West Ashley and Summerville. It was right in the middle of the Ashley River Historic Plantation District but, having been particularly touched by the ravages of time, it had become a largely wooded, and marshy old phosphate strip mine.  In the middle of that overgrown chaos were a few old English bricks - sparking both curiosity and additional investigation.  This was the site of "Oak Plantation," with a history dating back to 1660 and a Proprietorial Grant of the land.  A history that spanned from the Seewee Indians to the Civil War when the home was destroyed as a result of the invading army.  A small dig between the bricks revealed a whole other story you will never find in local history books. What did we find?In the earth we uncovered relics that told of a larger history, one that spanned an ocean and hinted at its royal beginnings. What we found were broken pottery shards.  Early slipware, Blue Dutch Delft Pottery, and finer English china chinoiserie.  But how are all these connected?  

Look back to 1662.  Charles II of England was in need of a wife and in that quest married the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza.  (So ... historic connection #1 - Charles II - of which Charles Town was named).  Good Catherine brought with her a considerable dowry, and within that dowry was a consignment of Chinese tea from Macau.  The consignment was marked "Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas" (Transport of Aromatic Herbs) – later abbreviated to T.E.A.  Now those Portuguese were phenomenal explorers and mapmakers, famous for exploring most of the coastline of the Americas in their quest for a faster route to the far east and all its unique goods and trading opportunities.

So here we have a new queen with a tea drinking habit and it's in the nature of these things that the Courtiers follow their lead and drink tea, the nobles follow the courtiers and the landed gentry in turn mimic the nobles and so on down the pecking order.  By the mid 1800's everyone was drinking tea quite habitually, and it's no surprise that this found its way across to the colonies. And tea's journey across the pond? Ask the residents of Boston who partied with the stuff.  (Historic connection #2 - TEA enters American folklore via Boston Harbor. )

Have you ever tried to drink tea from a pewter tankard?  It's dreadful!  The same is true for tea from an earthenware jar, just not Tiffin. So, Catherine needed something to drink the tea from that was appropriate to its delicacy and the Chinese had already worked that out.  Enter porcelain or "bone china" as it's sometimes known. Now the Portuguese would bring these artifacts back from China - but so did the Dutch.  Their potteries in Delft (Netherlands) had a history of making cups and saucers for years adorned with local painted patterns. A supply embargo caused by the death of the China's Wanli Emperor led to the Dutch copying the Chinese imports. This tin-glazed earthenware is the Blue Delftware we are familiar with and supplying to the rapidly gentrifying population keen to copy their social superiors.  Delftware pottery is not translucent, as is bone China, and has a white tin based coating on the exterior.  We found some of this Dutch or early English pottery at Oaks Plantation (Historic connection #3).

The British were not a nation to sit idly by and noticed what the Dutch were developing.  With increasing exploration and a burgeoning colonial America, a lot more people and a bigger empire to supply, they began to copy the designs in the Staffordshire potteries.  Enter Josiah Wedgwood and his contemporary, Josiah Spode. They were primarily chemists and secondly potters.  They improved on the earthenware with soft paste porcelain almost identical to the Chinese product.  This they manufactured in increasing quantities and transported to the docks of Liverpool and Bristol for export.  Mass manufacturing, lowered costs creating bigger markets, and shipping by exactly the same ports and ships as used in a growing slave trade (Historic connection #4) - we found English porcelain at Oaks Plantation mixed with everything else.

And so, in this is the story of a King's bride - a King that gave his name to this city.  A story of Portuguese exploration, of Dutch commerce, Chinese war and English manufacturing might.  A story of Boston rebellion and a story of the antebellum South bruised and broken after the Civil War.   A story of what was once a lady's finest tea set, now a few shards of pottery lying quietly in the woodland mulch that had, via war and pestilence, become just shard fragments in a forgotten woodland by the banks of the Ashley River in Charleston SC.  

Note: This isn't the first project we've encountered in which we were able to uncover historic relics - our project in renovating the historic Gadsden House in downtown Charleston proved to uncover some pretty interesting artifacts. With so much history all around us, it's no wonder there is always so much to discover in the Holy City. Have a look at our FREE Discover Charleston book and see what you can discover for yourself...

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